Attacking the Culture with TikTok

Another day, and another joke turns deadly serious.

Some time ago, when the United States was ramping up the attacks in the Muslim Middle East as part of the War on Terror, it occurred to me that the last time the Untied States won a war, we did not do it through any kind of cultural sensitivity strategy. There was no ‘hearts and minds’ plan to defeat the Japanese or Germans. We were there to beat them and force our cultural norms upon them, and we did. Resistance got the Japanese nuked, twice.

This plan worked and there have been no military problems from either population in 80 years. The alternative plan didn’t work in Vietnam, and it didn’t work in Iraq or Afghanistan. We built schools for the girls in Afghanistan and built infrastructure, but far too few Afghanis, including those that didn’t join the Taliban, did not appreciate it. After 20 years, they ran us out on a rail and erased our presence there as fast as they could. Pity the poor girls who trusted us.

There was another plan, as I forwarded somewhat factiously, that might have worked without killing so many people. My idea was to carpet bomb places like Afghanistan with massive amounts of the things we love, and they would, too. If we air dropped pallets of beer, whiskey, and wine, and we followed up with battery operated TVs with DVD players that included both old episodes of ‘Friends’ for the ladies and porn for the men, we’d have sapped their will to fight and blow themselves up. At a far lower cost in blood and treasure, we could have dropped clothes, shows, sporting equipment, and anything that allowed their people to get distracted from the things that drive their culture and move them over to the things that drive ours. They would have ceased to fight to maintain their culture because frankly, ours is a lot more fun. That’s why we like it. Few men would be willing to strap on a bomb if he had a case of beer and a stack of porn at home.

I was joking at the time, but how much worse could that plan have gone than what we actually did? I read that we gave our soldiers a book called ‘Three Cups of Tea’ about how to adopt to the culture of Afghanistan, and armed with the right cultural sensitivities, we tried to help them become a very high-minded version of us, and there is no way to interpret what happened next: THEY REJECTED US! They firmly said no. They knew we were fakers and would give up one day. They rejected the America of Thomas Jefferson in a way they may not have rejected the America of Jerry Springer.

In another guise, wasn’t this the plan for the old VOA, called the Voice of America, which we broadcast into communist countries during the Cold War? We were seeking to undermine the old socialist/communist values. As far as I can tell, it worked. We defeated the Soviets without firing a shot.

Recently, new entrants in cultural influence game have entered the picture and these entities have new protocols and ideas. The United States government is now looking into TikTok, a Chinese owned social media company. It would be difficult to conceive of a social media platform more powerful and socially influential than those owned by American citizens, but TikTok is unquestionably owned by a Chinese company called Byte Dance. Other than that, TikTok is not particularly different than Instagram, or portions of Facebook, or other apps. It’s a platform for promoting short videos and sharing them along common interests. Most of what goes viral there is silly and harmless, and at worst, prurient and low-minded. It’s porn and booze for the mind.

The US Congress recently held hearings about TikTok and called in the English-speaking CEO, Shew Zi Chu, for testimony. Chu did his best to answer the openly hostile questions from the typically confused looking and flummoxed US congressman, but he was clearly the wrong person for the job. He was urbane, sophisticated, polished, but Chinese in appearance and accent, and too slick by half. According to the AP, here is his background:

Chew, 40, is a native of Singapore, where he lives with his wife, Vivian Kao, and their two children. He graduated in 2006 from University College London and worked for two years at Goldman Sachs before moving to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree at Harvard Business School. Chew had a two-year internship with Facebook.

After earning his MBA, he became a partner at venture capital firm DST Global, where he worked for five years and helped facilitate investment in the company that became ByteDance. He then worked for five years at Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone company, before being appointed TikTok CEO in 2021, replacing Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive. Chew reports to ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo.

By all appearances, Chu is qualified for his job and excellent at it, but one wonders if, in the minds of the members of Congress, they think the Chinese are doing to the Americans what I thought the Americans should do to the Afghanis. We should have undermined Afghan culture with the worst excesses of our own culture rather than try to get them to accept our advanced ideas about democracy and equal rights.

Now, the Chinese are seeking to undermine us with the excesses of our own culture, and they are collecting data about American habits and values at the same time. As it stands, 150 million downloads of the TikTok app are reported in the Untied States. There are only 340 million people in the whole country; this app is pervasive!

Imagine, with all the data that both the Chinese government and the American media companies have collected, how much both can influence our people and culture. They are shaping the American view of itself. They are shaping every aspect of our culture, habits, and values exactly as I thought we could have done to the religious people of the Middle East. Under no circumstance should this power be given to a foreign government entity and certainly not a Chinese one.

The worm has turned regarding China. The changing perception was already underway in 2016, but the trend accelerated under President Trump and President Biden is not turning the clock back. They are not a friendly nation to the United States or their own people. Our highest ideals are better than what they have on offer, even if the Afghani’s rejected it and hundreds of millions of Americans don’t know what they are. Our ideas about freedom are universal, and good, and the Chinese oppose them in fundamental ways.

Frankly, the United States should ban TikTok, and for the same reasons the Chinese ban certain American tech products. A massive social media presence is a doorway into the American mind and values systems and that makes it a valuable tool of war. This used to be called propaganda, but it’s just being hidden in viral videos. I think we could have won the war in the Middle East had we played this game. Islam is pervasive but not all powerful. We tried to give them our highest and most abstract ideals, and their most powerful leaders didn’t want them.

TikTok appeals to the baser instincts and tastes, and that’s OK, but not if those messages can be turned into weapons. Our most powerful leaders should reject these products if they are foreign owned. The Chinese know we’re easily distract-able and most Americans are also not interested in our highest ideals any more than the Taliban were. We can’t keep ideas out of the culture, and we can’t block the path of American innovation, but we can control who sends the messages. The Chinese don’t get to enjoy the 1st Amendment, and we should reject their tech without remorse.